I like to think I speak four languages. American English is my third.
When my parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti, they knew very little English and spoke to my brother and I only in French. They thought it was important that we know how to speak French for several reasons. French was my first language.
They spoke to each other — and their other Haitian friends and family — in Kreyol. Whenever we got in trouble, though, they’d slip up and yell at us in Kreyol too. So in my young mind, I viewed French as a respectable “child” language; and thought Kreyol was reserved for adults and viewed it as more of a “sassy” language, a language with way more “attitude” than French (because, of course, we never learned any “sassy” french). I remember when we visited Haiti in the summers, always being in awe of other children (oftentimes younger than me) who spoke Kreyol so well — and publicly! I would always think it was so bold of them (even though I knew and understood that Kreyol was their native tongue). Although I didn’t “officially” speak Kreyol as a child (since I had no real practice — unless my brother and I were mocking some adult or trying to be fresh), I learned it and understood it perfectly. Kreyol was my second language.
When it was time for us to start school (in the US), I knew NO English. Literally. My parents taught us how to say “I need to use the bathroom” — but that was the extent of it. I totally learned to speak English in school. I only know this from stories my parents have told me though; I have no recollection of ever having communication difficulties in school. Apparently (and I witness this with my own young children), young kids don’t need to be able to speak the same language to play and have fun with each other, and a young mind is so open that I learned English (speaking, reading and writing) quickly with no issues.
Growing up in an African-American community, I also learned to appropriately speak American slang, my 4th language. My teachers taught me English, and I learned slang from friends and peers. To fit in, I had to learn to speak and use slang correctly: to the right people and at the right times. It was never spelled out for me, but I instinctually understood that proper English was what you spoke to teachers, other grown-ups and most white people (because at the time I didn’t believe that white people understood slang), and slang was reserved for peers I was comfortable with, the school yard, people who spoke slang to me, and for the times I needed to be sassy or demonstrate some level of attitude.
So without being fully aware, I’ve been “code-switching” my whole life. As a young child, home life was experienced in French and Kreyol, and school life was experienced in English and slang. It’s funny how my mind categorized each language. I found the categorization very necessary in order to navigate the different languages and worlds I existed in. As a Haitian-American today, I still benefit from being able to speak French, Kreyol, English and slang at the right times and to the right people. I have been able to successfully communicate with my 98 year old grandmother and other non-English speaking relatives in Kreyol and/or French; I speak Kreyol with my Haitian friends or when I’ve visited Haiti; I’ve spent time in France, Montreal, and St. Martin where I was a great advantage because I spoke French; I’ve given presentations on the corporate and Ivy League levels in English; I’m able to get the best price on incense and essential oils from the street vendors on the corner of Broad and Market; have made friends with the fellas on the corners in my old neighborhood in Harlem; and I’m able to give the correct amount of “don’t mess with me” attitude when defending my personal rights and/or those of my children.
Today, my kids are 3, 5 and 7 years old, and I speak to them primarily in proper English (sometimes I’ll slip into slang mode when they’re in trouble). In turn, they speak proper English to me. Lately, I’ve been witnessing them learning and experimenting with slang amongst themselves and with their friends — but not with me. I smile and realize that they are learning to code-switch too.
Do you find that you’ve had to code switch too? How did you learn? What’s been your experience?